Today is the birthday of British character actor Sebastian Cabot (1918-1977). American fans who know him best as Brian Keith’s lovable Gentleman’s Gentleman on Family Affair will be interested to know that he actually began his working life as a servant (he’d been a chauffeur, a valet, a butler and a cook) and this is where he acquired his polish. He’d quit school at 14 to work for actor Frank Pettingell, and this is where and how he got the idea into his head to become an actor himself. He had no formal training and did most of his learning on the job. Interestingly, he appears to have had little stage experience; most of his career was in film and television.
In America our immediate association with Cabot is with his Family Affair character Mr. French, and with related benign roles (often for Disney): the voice of Bagheera in The Jungle Book, the narrator of Winnie the Pooh, and the part of Santa Claus in the 1973 remake of Miracle on 34th Street.
But I’ve recently had occasion to contemplate another side of him — that of the blood curdling villain!
Recently, TCM played Terror in a Texas Town (1958), an interesting film for all sorts of reasons. Written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, it’s main strangeness is a hero played by Sterling Hayden, whose weapon of choice is his dead father (a Swedish whaler)’s HARPOON. Don’t believe me? Look!
And Cabot plays the villain — the usual sort in the usual scenario: he’s an expanding cattle baron who wants the pesky farmers out of the way so he can acquire land — more LAND! And much as with Charles Laughton and Victor Buono, his wide girth and palpable sensuousness serves him well in such roles, as he relishes wine and cigars, and goes about dressed in silk finery. He hires a gun slinger to murder “just one” of the farmers “as an example” — and you know how that always works out. (When you hire a murderer you get…a murderer.) It’s an interesting little movie, not least because it’s such a strange spectacle watching Cabot be so mean.
Over Fourth of July weekend we watched the Disney classic Johnny Tremain (1957), a movie I had not seen since my childhood. Here, he plays a luxury loving Tory, who not only hates the Revolutionary Patriots of Boston, and refuses to acknowledge his own nephew (his dead sister’s only child), but tries to get him hung for stealing a pewter mug which the boy had rightfully inherited. A man without love or feeling or principle. The absence of the comforting chin whiskers adds to his piggishness. This one’s a classic — everyone ought to see it at least once.
Lastly — honorable mention: he plays one of Rod Taylor’s antagonists in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1960), one of the guys who won’t believe the hero no matter what he says, less a villain perhaps here than an obstacle. He sure ain’t cuddly in the role!
At any rate, another side of Sebastian Cabot. Watch these films, and it will now be possible to imagine Mr. French saying, “Buffy, Sissy, Jody — to the dungeon!”
To learn out more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.